In June, I got to visit India for a week. It’s been 8 years almost to the week since I was last in the country. While I didn’t see as much of the country this trip, it was interesting trying to spot what has and has not changed since my last visit.
One caveat – all of these have a heavy bias toward Bangalore & Karnataka (where I was staying). India is a massive country with different rates of change in each region. Bangalore is a vibrant, prosperous, global city with an economy focused on tech rather than agriculture or heavy manufacturing – so I’ll just leave it at that.
What Has Changed
India is 33% Richer
India is still a developing country, and all too many Indians face some of the world’s worst poverty. However, it is encouraging to see how many problems money can solve and how many problems are solved with just a bit more money.
In the US, I fall for the mental shortcut of thinking about “rich” and “poor” countries, when that is not how it is in real life. Wealth is on a spectrum. Even if you are only $1 richer…you are still richer. And if you only had $2 to start – that extra $1 is huge. Going from $5000 PPP per capita to $7000 PPP per capita is huge.
And you can see it anecdotally. There are certainly more mopeds; there are more (and better) phones; there are more consumer options & services; there’s a commercial sporting culture; and there’s a growing domestic tourism industry with thriving sites, restaurants, outfitters, etc. A whole upwardly mobile middle class is self-reinforcing as they spend more on their children’s education, nutrition, travel, and health.
It’s also impressive how quickly India rebounded from the COVID drop – and how much growth they have sustained since 1990.
India is Actually “Leapfrogging”
One of the big questions in my college classes in the early 2000s was whether developing countries had to go through the same development path that Western & East Asian nations went through – or could they “leapfrog” developments and skip ahead?
In other words, did they have to adopt universal landline phones…or could they just skip to mobile phones? Did they have to build an electrical grid around coal, or could they just skip to solar? Did they need a full, legacy banking system, or could they skip to Internet banking?
So far, India is not only leapfrogging the West on specific technologies…they are really setting a new pace. Their phone data is cheaper & more reliable. Their payment system is better, cheaper, and more widely adopted. Small businesses and individuals are all mobile-first – leading to better service delivery (I’m looking at you, Kroger Pickup…).
India still uses way too much coal, but all their new capacity is solar and wind, so hopefully, they won’t have the stranded asset issue we’re dealing with in the US.
Hopefully, their electric mopeds and e-bikes will lead to re-developed cities for humans rather than cars. So far, they are pulling it off.
Incremental Standard of Living Improvements
I kept looking around for some “big” transformative difference, but I didn’t see anything. And yet…there were a million small differences adding up to a very different country.
Soap and clean restrooms (I’m assuming a big change from COVID) were much more common. Customer service (I’m assuming from a more demanding consumer class) was much better. The highways were better. The air was better. The shops were soooo much better. Interactions with government officials were better.
And again – none of these changes were from a changing culture or changing values. They are all simply from individuals having more power and leverage to demand and negotiate a better life from business, government, etc.
Business is Formalizing
As recently as 2015, most US business publications described India as a nation of small shopkeepers. And it still is. However, big business has definitely moved in.
And it’s not just IKEA and Nestle. It’s Indian big business. India has a new class of billionaire entrepreneurs who (for better and for worse) are determined to formalize Indian business to go head to head with Europe, the US, Japan, and China. And they are pulling it off. So many new mega-brands, retail stores, logistics chains, etc. It’s exciting and fascinating to see.
What Has Not Changed
Too Much Surplus Labor
India has still not figured out how to fully harness their massive, youthful labor force. It’s still holding back individuals and their economy.
It’s sad that it still makes more economic sense to pay 20 young men to dig ditches rather than buy 1 backhoe and let the other 19 do more productive, creative, human work.
The surplus labor has weirdly supercharged some technology. Home delivery works “better” in India than in the US because not only are the apps better and the cities denser – but also, there are a lot of 18 year olds willing to drive around dropping off food.
On the one hand, it’s amazing that they have better work than in years past. On the other hand, it shows how much further India has to go to provide everyone with upwardly mobile opportunities.
Food, Culture & History
The food was just as good as I remember. The culture & history was even more complex and fascinating than I remember. Never change.
Messy Politics & Policy
India is one country that can truly compete with the United States for “super complicated, loud, fraught, tense, but also weirdly stable and secure democracy”. Like the US, it has a large, diverse population with historical and cultural currents that you really have to have lived there to understand.
I do not know what to think of Modi – other than that, he seems too politically smart, dominant, and insecure for India’s greater good. He’s getting some things done…but he’s also more of a good showman and brilliant tactical politician than someone who can really push India’s democracy forward. It seems like the opposition is getting their act together (or at least in Karnataka). Ideally, better competition will push him to lean on his best ideas rather than his worst.
But in the meantime, their democracy is just as messy as ever, which, ironically, I take to mean that it’s just as healthy as ever.
India is Still The Future
The week I visited, India became the most populous country on Earth. And one thing that has not changed since 2015 is that I still think it’s the country of the future. It has to be.
Unlike China, India is not aging – it’s becoming more youthful. Also, unlike China, India’s democracy shows how it can produce economic results that are not brittle. India’s diaspora means that India wants to keep & preserve the current global setup rather than carve out little spheres of influence. It thrives in a peaceful world with rising trade, technology, and shared ideas.
India has major challenges but it just keeps moving along. I’m glad I’ve been able to see a bit of it in the past decade and hope to see more of it sooner than later.